My Greek friends have been asking me what I think of Obama’s election as President. The only way I could really explain how I felt was to tell them about the bike rides I took as a kid during summers at our country house in Atlantic Highlands, a Victorian resort town of modest houses on the Jersey shore with a view to New York City and a claim to fame as the highest point on the Atlantic seaboard (once you dispense with Mt. Desert Island in Maine).
There was a strip of basically just one block in the town—ironically enough the street was called Lincoln Avenue—where a few black families had a home. The bungalows were a bit run down, or maybe the front lawns just weren’t as tidy as our own, but that must have been true of countless other houses in town. What I do recall, though, is how I speeded up as I biked down the street on my way to the marina and worried about getting a flat tire in this stretch of town. I wasn’t even conscious of what my anxiety meant. But it was there. Like a viral infection it was there, inside me, without my knowing how it got there.
No one in my extended family—and there were lots of them at the house (it slept 12, including cots in the attic and a daybed and glider on the enclosed front porch)—ever mentioned this block or its residents or a reason to be cautious. I had had no instructions to be careful. In fact, no one even asked where I’d gone on my daily bike rides or was worried that I’d disappear for hours on end with my bicycle. Perhaps my parents were just relieved that I was outside and not in the house reading. I imagine they must reconciled themselves early on to the fact that their eldest son was decidedly not an athlete in any conventional sense of the word but instead a hopelessly uncoordinated kid who when playing baseball—a sport I hated and was so bad at I was inevitably assigned to the outfield—so favored his left hand that he had to both catch and throw the ball with the same hand, something I imagine shamed my father. What kind of American kid can’t play baseball? I used to silently reproach my father for not making an effort to understand his gay son better, but now I realize how strange I must have seemed to him: a skinny gawky kid who read books and painted instead of playing infield for the local Little League.
My father certainly would have reprimanded us for using a racial epithet. He was a pious, kind man. He went to church every Sunday and got up every workday at 5:30 in the morning to take the commuter bus to his job as a film cutter in New York. A modest man with an inexhaustible reservoir of patience. Although he had to contend with a father more successful than he and a wife who wanted more than he could provide, he never complained.
He provided for us as best as he could and that included our summers at Atlantic Highlands. Ok, the house was my grandfather’s, but it’s the sacrifice that counts: he left me and my brothers with my mother at the summer house, spent the work week alone at our apartment in the city and commuted every weekend to be with us. I don’t think he ever considered reserving part of his paycheck for himself. He had a stamp collection, but didn’t spend money on buying stamps; instead, he relied on friends and relatives to supply him with stamps from Europe and South America, places he never himself visited. I wonder now what images coursed through his mind as he carefully steamed off the stamp from a postcard his uncle had sent him from Italy. What people ate for lunch, what their houses were like, what they did with friends on a Saturday evening. Perhaps he didn’t imagine anything, and certainly not himself traveling to Genoa where his grandfather had been born. He never had many expectations from life, except that his three sons would be happy. Which, I suppose, is a fairly imposing expectation. Maybe he realized that and thought there wasn’t room left over for other wishes.
His commitment to his family sprung from his love for us but also from a deeply rooted sense of duty, shaped in large part by his faith. And part of his faith was a belief in the dignity of each person. But his faith never gave rise to a call to action when when this dignity was compromised, or at least I never sensed it. In this (as perhaps, too, in his marriage) he was a fatalist. Which is a way of saying he was a limited man who tried to be decent.
We didn’t talk about black people at home. Admittedly, there wasn’t much occasion for it. When I was ten we moved from the city to a working-class suburb in New Jersey which was almost all white. I went to a Catholic high school that was also all white. Black people were simply not part of our everyday life. They weren’t reviled in my parents’ house but neither were they—or the civil rights movement or the legacy of slavery or racism, for that matter—commented on. It was a patina of civility, this disengagement from the social upheaval that marked the years of my childhood and adolescence.
Although I didn’t know any black kids my age when growing up, I was exposed to hundreds of images of black men, women and children on TV and in the movies, and these were (at least then) a very slanted portrayal of African Americans, (mis)informed by stereotypes if not blatant prejudice. It is in our nature to generalize, to draw conclusions and form opinions from the very limited sample of personal experience we have, and kids are no different. At least I wasn’t. I learned my apprehension of the Lincoln Avenue residents not from instruction but half unconsciously by inference. My father could have corrected this but like so many of his white compatriots didn’t.
What makes Obama’s election so extraordinary is that he was voted by countless white Americans who, like me and I imagine my father, too, at one point in their lives experienced the same quick tightening of the gut or the sharpened sense of watchfulness as they took their own version of a bike ride down Lincoln Avenue, like walking down a city street as a group of young black teenagers approach from the opposite direction.
I think my father would have voted for Obama, and I’m sad he’s not here to witness the inauguration.
Around the corner from our apartment in the city lived a kid a few years older than me. I never actually met him and didn’t even know his name, but I still remember him. He stood out from the other kids on the block. He must have been around sixteen when he dyed his hair blond. Actually it turned out a kind of orangey yellow. Of course he was teased and beaten up but he never cried. At least not in front of his tormentors. Now I’d say he was effeminate, but back then the other kids called him words like sissy and faggot. I didn’t really understand what faggot meant. But I knew faggot wasn’t something good to be. And I also knew, even then just a kid, that there was something in me that was like him. These were the days before gay actors and comic book heroes and a whole slew of other icons that gay kids could grow up with. I have this very faint memory of feeling that if there was this affinity between us, if I was really like him, then that was something that I would have to conceal. That’s not how I experienced it back then, of course. I’m giving words to an amorphous feeling which could not have been articulated even if I had been conscious of it. Rather it was a moment—one in a long series during my adolescence—in which an enhanced self-watchfulness and caution were inscribed within me. It was then that I became both a resident of my own Lincoln Avenue and the cyclist who races past it.
Image: Natalia Goncharova, Cyclist (1913)